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When it comes to deciding which meat to try, we get a lot of questions about the difference between two of our main offerings: Elk and Bison. And while they’re both considered game meats and are leaner than traditional beef cuts as well as richer in flavor, they’re two very distinct animals. For starters, their feeding habits are different, as are their habitats. Bison live and graze in open plains and pastures, eating mostly wild grasses, while elk tend to stick to more wooded areas, consuming a mix of grasses, shrubs, twigs, wild grains and berries. Elk are smaller and leaner whereas bison are bigger and bulkier with more muscle mass. These things (and many more) result in very unique meat profiles.
So how do you know what’s what? Well, we asked The Grill Dads to help us out. And it was a challenge they were more than happy to accept. See below for their extremely thorough comparison of Elk Skirt Steaks vs. Bison Skirt Steaks.
Skirt Steak: Elk and Bison. WTF is the difference?
Article & Photography by The Grill Dads.
An epic shipment from The Honest Bison recently showed up on our doorstep. When we were done playing with the dry ice, we noticed that we had both elk and bison skirt steak. Our mission was clear: taste test!
We cooked both on a gas grill with just salt, pepper and olive oil. We wanted the taste of the meat to shine (we tested before we made tacos). Here are the results:
The two cuts couldn’t look more different. The Elk was a gorgeous deep red. Long, thin and skinny pieces. The bison was a lighter shade of pink, about the same length but was taller and thicker, more like a flat iron steak. This is a good time to visually note the direction of the meat fibers, so you know how to cut perpendicular to the grain before service. Nine out of ten times tough skirt steak is solely the fault of the person slicing the meat.
From a technical perspective the bison appears more ideal for grilling out of the gate because of the thickness of the cut. This makes it easier to get a great maillard reaction (or sear) without overcooking the meat.
From a visceral perspective the elk was more appealing. The deep red color and familiar skirt steak shape are enough to make anyone dream of tacos or carne asada.
It’s hard to resist making comparisons to beef when you try other red meats. Beef is the gold standard and most familiar protein for many of our pallets. But this is a trap for many reasons, mainly the diet of the animal. If you are used to organic, grass-fed beef, then the differences between beef, elk and bison will be subtle nuances.
If you are comparing grain fed or finished beef it is a bigger leap to the flavor profile of elk and bison. Those who make the bigger leap would describe elk and bison as “gamey.” But let’s be honest, gamey is just an overused word for “unfamiliar.”
Fat content plays another big role here. Many butchers will tell you that fat is flavor. Their house burger grind will taste the same every week but contain scraps from different cuts. How do they do this? The same amount of fat from the same cut of the animal every time. Bison has significantly less fat than beef, and elk has even less than bison. This means the majority of the taste is coming from the meat fiber.
Our point here is that if you compare these elk and bison steaks to corn fed mega-marbled wagyu steaks you might as well be comparing apples to anything that isn’t an apple. So when we compare to beef, know that we’re talking about grass-fed.
All that being said… elk had a big beefy flavor. Strangely it had a beefier flavor than beef skirt steak. The closest thing we can relate it to is the meat that comes from the chuck primal of the beef, known for classic beef flavor. It was also very tender. The only thing missing was the flavor from the grill. The meat is so thin that you have to get it off the grill almost as fast as it goes on in order to keep it from over-cooking. A protein this lean won’t survive over-cooking. Ninety seconds can be the difference between decadent and rubber.
The bison had a sweeter, milder flavor than elk or beef and was also firmer. The flavor benefited greatly from the longer exposure to the grill, giving a nice contrast in taste and texture between the smoky, seared outside and the medium-rare juicy inside. Much like the elk, over-cooking would be the end of the enjoyable experience, and the shape of this steak makes cooking it to the perfect temp much easier.
Tips for cooking:
We always talk about letting steak sit out to get to room temp before cooking. Although this is still the rule, elk has to be the exception. Rub it in olive oil, salt and other spices then put it in the coldest part of the fridge for an hour and go straight to the grill with a high direct heat for a very short amount of time. This will help you avoid overcooking the meat.
The bison skirt is a heavily used muscle in a super lean animal. This means the muscle fibers are intense and the lack of fat can give it a mild flavor. An acidic marinade will help with both flavor and tenderness. We’re going to make this again and go big with the citrus in a carne asada marinade.
About the Grill Dads:
The Grill Dads are Mark Anderson and Ryan Fey, also known as Mark and Fey. Best friends for more than 20 years, the two worked by day as advertising executives when they started cooking together for dinner parties and casual barbecues. As the hungry crowds grew, Mark and Fey were able to turn their passion for making crave-worthy weekend eats into appearances as guest executive chefs planning sold-out pop-up menus at Los Angeles restaurants.
Since then, the duo have been featured on Food Network’s Guys Big Project, – a competition hosted by Guy Fieri, in which they were named one of the winners and were granted their own Food Network Series! And thus, the Grill Dads were born. This summer you can catch the Grill Dads on their latest show, the Comfort Food Tour (premiering July 21 at 8|7c).